Half Of Supermarket Chicken Harbors Superbugs, Consumer Reports Finds

Packages of chicken sit on display at a supermarket in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. The Food and Agri
Packages of chicken sit on display at a supermarket in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations will release its monthly food price index on June 6. The index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, consists of the average of five commodity group price indices including meat, dairy, grains, oil and sugar. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rick Schiller describes himself as a "super-healthy dude," who practices taekwondo and rarely misses work.

The thought that he could be leveled by a piece of chicken had never crossed his mind, said Schiller, of San Jose, Calif. Yet that's just what happened in September, when a contaminated chicken thigh landed him in the hospital with excruciating pain and a dangerous fever.

"It was the sickest I've ever been in my life," Schiller said. "It's a blessing I'm still alive."

The Foster Farms salmonella outbreak that struck Schiller came shortly after Consumer Reports purchased chicken from stores around the country for an investigation. One of the packages turned out to be associated with the outbreak, which sent 40 percent of its victims to hospitals -- about double the rate usually seen in a salmonella scare. Some experts said they think antibiotic resistance may be at least partially responsible for the unusual severity.

Consumer Reports' findings, published on Thursday, underscore the potential danger to Americans posed by an apparently high rate of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the poultry aisle. Microbes that can resist multiple drugs lurked in about half of the more than 300 samples of raw chicken breasts tested by the consumer organization. Nearly all the chicken, regardless of brand or label, harbored at least one of six potentially harmful bacteria including E. coli and salmonella.

"The stuff can even hang out on the outside of the package," said Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. "We're talking about serious potential for problems."

Overall, some 2 million Americans fight an antibiotic-resistant infection each year; 23,000 don't survive. The public health threat is attracting increased attention from advocates, scientists and federal agencies.

"If we're not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era," said Thomas Friedan, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in September when the CDC released a report detailing drug-resistance threats. "For some patients and some microbes, we are already there."

Overprescribing antibiotics to humans undoubtedly plays a role in the rising resistance of microbes. Cattle, swine, chickens and other livestock, however, receive the majority of the nation's antibiotics -- less often for the treatment of an animal's illness than to speed its growth or to prevent disease, which can be readily spread among industrially raised livestock kept in squalor.

The more antibiotics that are doled out to people and animals, especially when given at low doses over a long period of time, the faster that microbes can evolve and outsmart those drugs, experts warn. It's survival of the fittest at a microscopic level.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration released controversial new guidance addressing antibiotic overuse in livestock.

The agency has asked drug companies to voluntarily change their labels over the next three years to exclude growth promotion as a use for antibiotics. The rules, developed with the cooperation of industry, pertain to hundreds of antibiotics used to treat people -- including key weapons in fighting urinary tract infections and infections after surgeries. If a label changes, then farmers or feed mills would need to obtain a prescription from a veterinarian to treat a sick animal or to prevent disease. Before, they could simply buy the drugs from a feed store and administer them without a vet.

Critics say the FDA rules likely won't change the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock.

There are the predictable worries about the voluntary nature of the rules. But the real elephant in the room is a blurry line between growth promotion and disease prevention in livestock. According to FDA documents, no signs of illness are needed before a vet may green-light preventative antibiotics.

"Many of the drugs are approved for both growth promotion and prevention," said Avinash Kar, a health attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "So uses could remain more or less the same."

What's more, critics said, the veterinarians who would prescribe the antibiotics are often employed by meat producers. "If you'd like to keep your job, it's probably wise to go with the views of your employer," said Keeve Nachman, a scientist with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. "So there would be pressure to continue to use drugs in a similar fashion."

Consumer Reports' Rangan said the FDA move is "a step in the right direction, but we need more, and sooner."

The non-profit organization sent a letter to the FDA commissioner on Wednesday outlining the chicken test results and saying that there is "much more the agency must do to better protect the public health and to reduce the use of antibiotics in food animals."

The National Chicken Council, meanwhile, questioned the alarm over contaminated chicken. In an emailed statement to The Huffington Post responding to the Consumer Reports finding, the chicken council noted that "99.99% of servings of chicken are consumed safely." (Of the 160 million daily servings Americans consume, 0.01 percent amounts to 16,000 unsafe servings every day.)

"No legislation or regulation can keep bacteria from existing," Mike Brown, the industry group's president, told HuffPost. "We're at 99.99%, but we're going to keep working to reach 100."

"We take the safety of our chicken very seriously," added Brown. "After all, our families are eating the same chicken as you and yours."

Michael Doyle, director for the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, called the consumer group's report "sensational."

"Their samples came during peak season for finding harmful microbes in animals," Doyle said. And compared to retail poultry in China, Russia, Columbia and other parts of the world, added Doyle, "the numbers they are reporting are remarkably good."

Doyle said it was "intriguing" that Consumer Reports found no difference in contamination between organic, antibiotic-free chicken and birds conventionally grown.

Still, Kar emphasized the importance of purchasing antibiotic-free meat. "You're helping to put less antibiotic-resistant bacteria out into the world that can make its way back to our families," he said. Contamination of organic meat likely stems from a contaminated environment and may occur during processing, noted Doyle and Kar.

Bacteria, antibiotic-resistant or not, are killed by cooking chicken to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. But that may not be enough to eliminate the risk of exposure. The bugs may linger on kitchen surfaces or elsewhere in the environment.

Dangerous bacteria may even stick around on supermarket shopping carts.  

Once in the environment, bacteria may easily swap genes with one another -- including genes encoded with instructions on how to evade the drugs designed to kill it. So, even if a particular antibiotic-resistant microbe isn't capable of causing illness in humans itself, its DNA could find its way into a more malignant microbe such as the one that infected Schiller.

Rangen of Consumer Reports recommends that shoppers exercise vigilance, including wearing plastic bags as gloves when handling meat at the market, keeping it as cool as possible, selecting meat at the end of a shopping trip, and carefully cleaning before and after preparation of a meal. Hot soapy water will do the trick, Rangan said, along with occasionally disinfecting with diluted bleach or rubbing alcohol.

"But the goal is not to then hose your kitchen down in antibacterial cleaner," she said. Another proposed rule released this week by the FDA would force soap makers to prove that products with added antibacterial ingredients such as triclosan are safe and effective. Evidence suggests the chemicals can interfere with human hormones and may contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Schiller, too, underscored the importance of precautions.

"Don't take for granted that the food you're cooking is completely safe, even if it is wrapped up in a nice container," Schiller said. "Don't take your life for granted either."